The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 27, 2003
January 27, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 19


Undergrads Drawn to Public Health

JHU's unique offering is a joint endeavor of A&S and Public Health

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Above James Goodyear's office door hangs a nondescript charcoal-and-white sign that reads Public Health Studies. It's a small sign. His is a small office, tucked away on the first floor of an unnamed brick building located across the street from the Homewood campus proper. Although his space may be somewhat off the beaten path, Goodyear says, students seem to have a knack for finding it.

How? Well, they just follow "the buzz."

Goodyear is the associate director of Public Health Studies, an undergraduate program offered by the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences in conjunction with the Bloomberg School of Public Health. A sort of academic orphan, the program is currently not affiliated with any department. Public Health Studies' independent status, however, has not stopped it from last year ranking as the third most popular (out of 40) degree-granting programs in the school, positioned just behind such stalwarts as international studies and biology.

James Goodyear

In 2002, 58 Krieger students--out of a total 661--graduated with a bachelor's degree in public health, and there will be more than 60 new alumni from the program this spring. The program's high-water mark was hit in 2000, when public health was the second most popular major with 84 graduates--a far cry from public health's first two decades, when enrollment was consistently in the teens and even single digits.

Public health has existed as an undergraduate major at Johns Hopkins since the mid-1970s but didn't really take off until the mid-'90s, according to Goodyear. He attributes the sharp rise in recent years to a confluence of factors, including the steady increase of graduate public health programs nationally and extensive media attention to social issues such as famine, smoking, AIDS and nutrition.

"In the past five or six years, public health has really become much more of a student-driven major," says Goodyear, who has been advising students in the major since 1997 and became associate director in the fall of 1999. "I think students in the 1990s began to understand that public health was not only about a checklist of courses to take, it was also about the possibility to become involved in the community, do interesting internships and be able to make a difference. And in the last year, of course, there has been so much in the news about bioterrorism and public health that now it seems to be on everyone's radar screen. But why exactly is it so popular now? Maybe people just care more."

The major is tailored to prepare individuals for careers that have a basic science foundation, including medicine, or to orient students toward health policy and management, public information projects and other areas of the social and behavioral sciences.

Students in the program take their required courses, which are taught by both Arts and Sciences and Public Health faculty, during their freshman, sophomore and junior years at Homewood, where they can concentrate on the social sciences or natural sciences. In their senior year, majors take six or seven graduate-level elective classes at the School of Public Health in East Baltimore. Often considered the most popular courses, the electives offer the undergraduates the opportunity to interact with M.P.H. students and participate in research and service opportunities both locally and abroad.

Only a handful of American universities offer public health as an undergraduate major.

Gert Brieger, director of the Public Health Studies program at Johns Hopkins, says he knows of similar programs at the University of North Carolina and UCLA, but none quite like what is offered here.

"I would say ours is the most extensive and complete, as students stay in Arts and Sciences rather than take a limited number of courses in ... [an] affiliated school of public health [as they do at other universities]," he says.

Brieger, who came on board with Goodyear in 1999 and recently retired from his position as the William H. Welch Professor and Chair of the Department of History of Science, Medicine and Technology, says the program has become "a labor of love" for him. He says that what keeps him going is the quality and passion of the program's students, who often go on to law school, medical school and graduate studies in public health.

"We always seem to have excellent, dedicated students. Last year we had about 20 percent of our students graduate Phi Beta Kappa," he says. "In many ways they separate themselves from traditional pre-med students, who can be a pretty determined and driven lot. I often generalize that pre-meds are out to rule the world, while those in public health are out to save it."

In a sign of things to come, Goodyear says other schools "are emphatically thinking about adding public health majors to their curriculum in the near future" and he's been approached by representatives of several major universities in the past year to learn more about the JHU program.

"I think they are beginning to see what a wonderful program we have, one that combines undergraduate work, field experience and graduate courses," Goodyear says. "What we have is so unique. You can't do it at Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Students here have this remarkable opportunity, and fortunately many are taking advantage of it."

Goodyear says that because public health is so uncommon an undergraduate major, many students don't realize the option exists until they arrive at Johns Hopkins. While that reality has changed somewhat in the past five years, he says, most students still learn about the program through word of mouth, rather than arriving at the university with a built-in interest in public health.

"It's a major that students seem to migrate to," he says. "Students will learn about the program from upperclassmen and just the buzz on campus. They just seem to find us."

Public Health Studies moved into its current address, 3505 N. Charles St., over the summer. The program was formerly located in various spaces on campus, most recently the Office of Academic Advising in Garland Hall.

Goodyear says he enjoys his new quarters and views the permanent location as yet another step up for the program. Who knows, he says, maybe public health studies will be the most popular major at Homewood one day.

"I feel we have laid a groundwork over the last half a dozen years where we have turned out a lot of highly qualified students who have become very successful in their field," Goodyear says. "That is one reason why I really enjoy my job and this major, because the kids who come through here are so talented and enthusiastic. They look at the world and try to make a difference."